Explore The Euphrates and Tigris basin
The undulating plateau of the Tür Abdin, traditional heartland of the Syrian Orthodox Church – begins just east of Mardin. It is still home to a few Christians, who coexist uneasily with the local Kurds. Aside from a traditional livelihood of grape growing, the rocky, parched plateau is a poor region even by the standards of eastern Turkey, but the Christian villages are partly supported by émigrés.
Midyat is the western gateway to the Tür Abdin proper, which still has several villages either wholly, or partially, inhabited by Syrian Orthodox Christians, plus 46 monasteries and churches, some recently restored. Most are tricky to reach by public transport so either arrange a taxi or hire car.Read More
From Mardin, the “double” town of MIDYAT is an uneventful journey of just under an hour. The westerly portion is the unremarkable, Kurd-inhabited business district of Estel. Two kilometres east is the originally Christian portion of half-abandoned medieval mansions, known as Eski (Old) Midyat. Tourism is beginning to take off in the town, though facilities are still limited.
As recently as 1974 there were nearly 5000 Syrian Orthodox Christians in residence here, the men mostly engaged in gold- or silversmithing, but following PKK extortion and death threats, the population has dwindled to eighty families and one priest. However, because of the changed political climate a few Syrian Orthodox families are beginning to return.
The town’s churches are easily spotted by virtue of their graceful belfries. Mor Barsaumo, close to the main road and reached by an alleyway opposite the Cihan restaurant, was built as early as the fifth century, destroyed in 1793 and rebuilt in 1910. This is the best church to visit as it is the most active, and has a small school-room where the kids of the remaining Syrian Orthodox families come to learn Syriac, a language closely related to that used by Christ.
Situated some 22km southeast of Midyat, a couple of kilometres east of the İdil/Cizre road, the monastery of Mar Gabriel (Deyrulumur) is the geographical and spiritual centre of the plateau.
Founded in 397 AD, Mar Gabriel is the oldest and most vital surviving Syrian Orthodox monastery in Turkey. It’s the seat of the metropolitan bishop of Tür Abdin, who is aided by thirteen resident nuns and three monks, as well as a fluctuating number of local lay workers, guests and students. A working community, set among gardens and orchards, its primary purpose is to keep Syrian Orthodox Christianity alive in the land of its birth by providing schooling and ordination of native-born monks. Visiting hours are 9–11.30am & 1–4.30pm, with a lay person giving visitors a guided tour of the monastery. The glittering, mosaic-covered ceiling of the apse of the main Anastasius (512 AD) church is particularly memorable, though Tamerlane stripped the gold ceiling of the nave. The tour also takes in the circular dining room, surmounted by a dome donated by the Byzantine empress Theodora early in the sixth century AD, and the Church of the Mother of God, dating back some fourteen hundred years.
Recent restoration work has given the monastery a new lease of life, and there’s a tangible aura of prosperity, a sign that securer times have returned again to the Tür Abdin. Unfortunately, local Kurdish villagers and the Turkish State have contested the ownership of some of the monastery’s land, and the ongoing court case is seen as a litmus test of Turkey’s commitment to minority rights by some European bodies.
The Church of the Mother of God
The Church of the Mother of God
The most beautiful Syrian Orthodox building in Turkey is undoubtedly the remote, monastic Church of the Mother of God (İndath Aloho in Syriac, Meryemanna in Turkish). To reach it follow the Hasankeyf road for 3km, then turn right for Dargeçit. After 17km turn right (signed Meryemanna/Hah) and follow the road for 6km to Hesterek village, turn left here for Anıtlı – also known as Hah – a further 7km away. The church, on your right as you enter the village, is justifiably regarded by the local Süriyanis as the jewel in the Tür Abdin crown. This fifth-century foundation sports a two-storey wedding-cake-like turret with blind arches topped by a pyramidal roof; the archways and lintels are also heavily ornamented. The church has a virtually square ground plan, with a transverse nave, but what’s striking about the domed interior are the gorgeously ornate Corinthian capitals and an elaborate, relief-carved frieze. The village itself is fascinating. Once the centre of a community of several thousand, with over 44 churches in the vicinity, there are now just sixteen families remaining. At the centre of the village, atop a small rise, are a group of fortified houses where some five thousand Christians held out for months against a vastly superior Ottoman force in 1915 – with no Christian lives lost. Downhill from here are the remains of the church of Mor Bacchus, dating back to the second century, and en route back to the Church of the Mother of God, is the sixth-century church of Mor Sovo, destroyed by Tamerlane.
Heading back towards Midyat, and just to the left of the road by the main right turn for Anıtlı, is the prominent hilltop village of Zaz. What from the main road looks to be a castle turns out on closer inspection to be the Syrian Orthodox church of Mor Dimet (fourth century AD). It’s a striking place, inhabited by Jacob, a Süriyani returned from six years’ exile in Sweden and Germany, a nun, and a few Kurdish families. Further back towards Midyat, 10km along the Dargeçit road and then 3km north on a dirt track, the important Mar Yakoub monastic church in Baraztepe (Salah) village is substantial, but lacks the grace of the Church of the Mother of God at Anıtlı. Returning to the Dargeçit road, continuing east for 2km and then turning south for a further couple of kilometres, you reach the slightly later church of newly renovated Mor Kyriakos, with its small courtyard, in the mixed Christian/Kurdish village of Bağlarbaşı (Arnas). Its architect also built the Mar Azazael church on a knoll at the edge of Altıntaş (Keferzeh) village, about 7km east of Mor Kyriakos.